Is Maryland Really Gonna Give Its Farmers a Pollution Pass?

Legislation in Maryland could dampen Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts.

A creek flows into the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland's Eastern Shore. (Photo: Cameron Davidson/Getty Images)
 
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Maryland lawmakers are debating a bill that could amount to a pollution pass for farmers in the state. The “Agricultural Certainty” bill would excuse participating farmers from new state and local environmental regulations for ten years.

“Who’s going to eat the fish from the Chesapeake Bay and estuaries, which are so dangerous that doctors say if you are pregnant, don’t touch them? Who’s going to swim in those waters?”

In return, farmers would agree to meet existing pollution-reduction goals set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and would submit to inspections every three years.  

At a meeting of the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee on Tuesday, March 20 in Annapolis, legislators expressed enthusiasm for the agricultural certainty program—despite rigorous objections from many environmental organizations, which characterized the bill as risky and impulsive. The committee approved the bill on Thursday, March 21; it will now head to the full Senate, where it could be debated as early as Friday.

At stake is the health of the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North America, and ongoing Bay cleanup efforts that affect six states and the District of Columbia. 

Agriculture is the largest contributor of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, depositing nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment in the watershed in huge quantities. Nitrogen and phosphorous contribute to algae blooms that eat up oxygen in Chesapeake Bay waters, killing valuable fish and shellfish. The sediment blocks light needed by aquatic vegetation, which weakens and destroys habitats for young fish, crabs, and oysters. 

The arguments for Bay cleanup are not solely ecological. The Chesapeake Bay watershed covers 64,000 square miles and is home to 17 million people. The total economic value of the Bay is likely above one trillion dollars.

Proponents of the Agricultural Certainty bill, which include Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, the Maryland Farm Bureau, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, say the legislation balances cleanup efforts with the needs of farmers.

If passed, the bill would give farmers some degree of security in a profession that is subject to many challenges, including variable weather, fluctuating crop yields and market prices, and changing regulations. 

Bill sponsor Senator Thomas Middleton, a Democrat from Charles County, argued that the ten-year timeframe would encourage farmers to comply with existing regulations by granting flexibility.

“They are not saying that they not willing to do their part [to reduce pollution],” he said at Tuesday's hearing. Although the farmers would be granted a decade to come into compliance with new pollution reduction obligations, “they are not going to wait around until the last minute,” Middleton said. 

Middleton’s view was echoed in testimony by family farmers from Kent and Talbot Counties, farming associations including Atlantic Farm Credit, representatives from the Maryland departments of agriculture and environment, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. 

But opponents said the bill would provide too much freedom for farmers without enough transparency and accountability in return. “This bill should be called Agricultural Business Secrecy act of 2013,” said former U.S. Senator Joseph Tydings, who testified against the bill.

According to environmental advocates, farmers participating in similar agricultural certainty programs in Virginia have chafed at the idea of releasing data that links pollution to individual farms. Maryland’s agricultural certainty bill would release information in the aggregate, but would not allow the public access to  records on a farm-by-farm basis.

“The citizens of Maryland are being asked to invest their money and their confidence in an unprecedented program. The response they deserve is transparency and the ability to play a part in commenting on and verifying the process,” said Josh Tulkin, state director of Sierra Club Maryland, in an interview with TakePart. “If the public is deprived of that information, it’s going to be very hard to get public buy-in. This is too big to take someone’s word for it.”

The Sierra Club was joined by more than 20 organizations opposing the agricultural certainty bill, including Clean Water Action, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. 

Some advocates focused on the need to increase transparency before green-lighting an unprecedented regulation exemption program. Others said farmers were being incentivized in ways that could undermine the progress Maryland has made toward a cleaner Chesapeake Bay. 

“Giving people incentives to go beyond the requirements is a concept we can buy into, but this would reward people who are obeying the law,” Velma Smith, government relations officer at Pew Charitable Trusts, said in an interview with TakePart. “Think of it this way: If you have a traffic safety issue, you don’t send the police out to people who are driving safely to give them a commendation.”

Then there’s the question of whether farmers will accurately report pollution levels.

Last year, one out of every three farms audited by the Maryland Department of Agriculture had major violations of their nutrient management plans, which are conservation roadmaps filed by individual farmers. One quarter of those farms remained out of compliance after follow-up visits by inspectors. 

Senator Tydings implored the committee to think of the bill in broader terms than the benefits it would deliever to individual farms. Ongoing pollution of the Bay poses a major threat to public health, he said, and is an environmental justice issue because Bay pollution disproportionately affects less affluent citizens.   

“I’m concerned with what’s going to happen next summer or summer after that, with children from inner city of Baltimore. The only places they have to swim are Maryland’s public beaches. These beaches are increasingly dangerous,” Tydings asserted. 

“My grandchildren are going to go to swim at Ocean City because I can afford to send them. Who’s going to eat the fish from the Chesapeake Bay and estuaries, which are so dangerous that doctors say if you are pregnant, don’t touch them? Who’s going to swim in those waters?” he asked the committee. “I’ll tell you who: those inner city kids from Prince George’s country.”  

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